The Playdate is a well-constructed device oozing with charm but it's not without its flaws.
Funky, fun, and a little flawed, the Playdate is for art kids and kids at heart. I fell in and out of love with this thing several times over but by the end I found plenty of games to enjoy, many of which utilized the Playdate’s hardware in charming ways.
The Playdate is a handheld with a crank that comes packed with new games. Season One consists of 24 games that are automatically downloaded onto the console but there’s a twist: they’re rolled out over time with two games added every week for 12 weeks (the first two games are ready immediately). Right now, there’s no guarantee of more seasons but people can make their own games for it here and these games can be side-loaded onto the console.
I’m obsessed with the look of the Playdate. Panic and Teenage Engineering made a device that’s truly striking: from the bold marigold yellow and rounded edges of the otherwise square handheld to the visible metal screws that emphasize the mechanical nature of the crank.
In addition to the physical look, software details support the playful aesthetic and ethos of the system incredibly well. When you go to wake up the Playdate by pressing the top button an animation appears of one eye-opening, it’s just a simple line with a bracket for an eyebrow which gives it a cute, pet robot feel. If you do nothing, the eye closes again and an on-screen reminder tells you to press the button twice to unlock.
The initial start-up animation requires your input and it immediately got me ready to engage with something playful. Other details continue to amuse like the fact that the “settings” section is written in a unique font made up of one long wire, decorated by some screws; when you select “settings” the wire unravels to “plug into” the upper right corner of the device and then brings the settings into view. While aesthetics may seem like fluff compared to the feel of the system and its games these aspects reinforce the ethos of both the hardware and software: have fun with it.
The d-pad’s rounded edges make it unique while fitting the look of the overall console without sacrificing function. The A and B buttons feel like a lovely cross between the New 3DS XL and PS Vita. And all the face buttons have a nice, subtle gloss to them.
Like everyone else, the crank was my biggest question mark going into this. I’m happy to say it’s incredibly solid and the magnetic quality means it stays in place whether you’ve docked it into the console or are spinning it with all your might. It’s sturdy, smooth, and completely silent. I’ve only had the Playdate for a few weeks but I expect it to hold up nicely throughout the years.
It’s also worth noting that the Playdate has a 3-axis accelerometer that allows for motion control. This doesn’t come up much across Season One’s 24 games but it was a true delight and surprise to turn the Playdate sideways to pour a potion into a container.
Teenage Engineering describes itself as a company that “creates high quality, well designed, electronic products for all people who love sound and music” and holy cow did they bring it when it comes to the sound. The volume and clarity of the Playdate had me floored.
Using my Apple Watch to measure the noise output I placed the Playdate on my desk and held the watch near my chest. At max volume, the soundtrack for the game Whitewater Wipeout came in at about 75 decibels. As an anecdotal comparison point, that’s on par with about 2/3rds the max volume of my iPhone 13 Pro.
The volume and clarity is impressive; this thing gets loud.
According to Playdate’s official website, Bluetooth support is coming soon but until then there’s a headphone jack. It looks hilarious plugging my over-the-ear Razer Kraken headphones into this tiny console but the sound comes through loud and crisp without needing to crank the volume up much at all.
Entirely in black and white, I’m thoroughly impressed with how good these games look and how bright the screen is considering that it doesn’t have a backlight. Every game has a unique art style with Pick Pack Pup creating cute comic book panels to tell the story of a dog sorting items in a warehouse with matching puzzle gameplay and Zipper using dramatic contrast and negative space to create a fierce backdrop for its turned based samurai combat.
The Playdate can definitely hang in dimmer conditions than you might expect but it still isn’t a great experience if only your bedroom lamp is on or if you’re sitting at certain angles that don’t catch the light quite right. And yes you will still need those street lights shining to play anything if you’re the passenger during night drives. It’s not the most challenging problem to avoid but it does negatively impact the experience even indoors.
The Playdate’s battery lasts 8 hours active or 14 days on just the standby clock, as listed by the official website. Unfortunately, because it is impossible to fully turn off the console it means it's always draining the battery and if you’re playing regularly that means it’s dealing with a mix of those active and standby hours.
I fully charged my Playdate Friday night and played a few hours during the weekend so by Sunday afternoon it was down to about 25%. When completely dead it took me over 2.5 hours to reach a full charge. This isn’t necessarily a bad battery life but it does mean that if you’re trying to play regularly you’re going to want to have a consistent cadence of charging which isn’t ideal for a device with such a casual, pick up and play nature.
Take this with a grain of salt though because press was on a 2-day delivery schedule vs. the weekly schedule, I might've experienced worse battery life than the average player will because I was downloading games every 2 days rather than every 7 days.
The Playdate Stereo Dock would help me keep it charged the same way my Nintendo Switch dock means my Switch rarely dies but this accessory is optional, costs extra, and isn’t available for preorder yet. It takes up an outlet just like charging my Playdate currently does but just having it lying around gets messy when I have so many other things to keep charged that admittedly play a much bigger role in my day-to-day.
By far my least favorite thing about the Playdate is the ergonomics. Despite the rounded corners, there’s a sharpness to the sides that can be felt if you apply pressure in the wrong spot. As usual, it’s worth emphasizing that everyone is different and will thus feel different regarding ergonomics. I have small hands and I don’t know how much of a factor that played for or against me.
My go-to hand position with the Playdate is a cradle method with my left pinky holding up the bottom of the device, my index finger at the top, and my middle and ring at the back acting as a counterweight. My right hand shifting between the A & B buttons or the crank depending on what the game calls for. Maintaining this position creates a bit of a claw but it becomes necessary in games that have a multi-task feature of using both the D-pad and the crank especially if the input has to be quick. These moments were the worst for me.
Ergonomic annoyances were a barrier to fully enjoying some games on the Playdate but it wasn’t one that ever felt impossible to break through. Titles like Whitewater Wipeout require the crank for movement and the D-pad for tricks all while a giant wave is coming for you. It’s too much of a pain for me to want to rack up a high score but I still had some fun figuring it out.
When gameplay relies heavily on the crank I’d hold the console between my left thumb and other fingers, completely blocking my use of the D-pad in the interest of more support. This works pretty well but even in these instances moving the crank, especially quickly, creates an awkward push and pull between me and the console because the whole thing basically shakes.
This is most noticeable in a game like Time Travel Adventures where every subtle push/pull on the crank makes a wind-up man move ever so slightly in an effort to avoid enemies on your way to the end of the level. Some obstacles in Time Travel Adventures require you to crank it at lightning speeds but since there are no other inputs I found it manageable and that remains one of my favorite games on the console.
For games that primarily or exclusively used the face buttons, I held the Playdate the way I would a Game Boy. So when I was jumping and shoveling my way through a blazing forest in Up In Smoke or making music in Boogie Loops it felt like I was playing on just about any device.
On the console itself, the only accessibility option is to flip the display upside down so that the control scheme is flipped but if you plug the Playdate into a PC you can use the Mirror app to stream/capture gameplay audio and video. This app also gives players the option to use standard controllers (Xbox, PlayStation, Keyboard, etc) with Playdate games or view the content more easily by enlarging it.
The crank is required for some games which limits the accessibility options but the rest of the controls are remappable. The Mirror app also allows the Playdate audio to route to an assistive audio device.
I only played using the Mirror app for capture purposes but it was honestly a more comfortable experience than handheld alone because the console moving (as a result of me using the crank) didn’t impact me the same way because it didn’t cause my PC monitor to move.
Yes. The weekly rollout is risky in that your least favorite games could come at any time but it’s glorious in having a curated selection of good games delivered to you digitally.
The first games I played were Whitewater Wipeout and Casual Birder. Whitewater Wipeout was cool but a little uncomfortable to play. Casual Birder is about taking photos of birds where the crank helps you focus the camera but it just didn’t grab me. It was stiff to me and felt cramped on such a small screen. For a moment I thought, damn. I’m not a fan of the Playdate after all.
But the next day Time Travel Adventures (one of my favorites) appeared in all its weirdness as you are perpetually running late for a date but have to strategically crank your way through a simple yet challenging obstacle course. And so did Boogie Loops, a spiritual successor to Mario Paint that features dancing animals at the top. I started trying to figure out what each icon and element did, I started experimenting with sound and pitch, and most importantly I focused on figuring out how to make the panda bears and pizza slices at the top shake their ass because it was dumb and cute and funny. I still am nowhere close to making a song but I want to. And if I don’t ever make the song who cares, I’m having fun with it.
I was entranced with Omaze’s minimalist art style featuring brilliant puzzles that build over time with the challenge of getting a small ball from its starting circle to the last. Sometimes you’re using the crank to rotate circles or the ball itself, other times you’re dashing with the buttons or changing the rotation direction of nearby areas to avoid traps.
Spellcorked had me cranking to mix potions for customers, Inventory Hero turned item management into a focal point and somehow made it fun, Snak is a snake game that I was way too excited to play, Star Sled lets me fly through space with a crank to essentially lasso stars. I’m plenty content with this library which is full of heart, humor, and intrigue.
The Playdate is for art nerds, collectors, indie fans, Apple Arcade stans, and really anyone who thinks the idea of a bizarre little square with a crank and 24 games that all have something different (and amusing) to say is exciting. If this is you, you’ll likely find some joy in the Playdate.
But if you need this to have must-play, GOTY contender-level games, if you’re worried about the comfort of the device, or if the $179 generally gives you pause, this is likely not for you.
Overall, I welcome the Playdate into my collection. I look forward to the creativity that will come from the community and am crossing my fingers for a season 2 of games. I have plenty of criticisms of the Playdate, I don’t recommend it to everybody, but I am absolutely its audience and I can’t wait to get the stereo deck and cover.
One of the most common questions I’ve gotten about the Playdate is “is it something you see yourself playing for years or will it just be another gaming thing in your drawer collecting dust?”; I think the answer is somewhere in between. I want to continue with a few games (some have endings, others don’t) and then I’ll probably leave it at that outside of more seasons and maybe side-loading community-made projects onto it.
Personally, I don’t need to actively use any of my consoles forever to feel they added value to my life or that I got my money’s worth. Just ask the PS Vita I bought recently and have still barely touched.
When I was a kid me and my brother had a football video game that was shaped like a football. The schtick was in addition to selecting plays on the device (the way you would in a traditional video game) you’d have to fake throw the ball to get the quarterback to throw the ball. Your fake toss would, supposedly, determine the power and accuracy of the throw. It wasn’t the best game we had; it wasn’t the best toy we had. But it was a fun novelty. The Playdate feels like a high-end version of those kitschy games but it has the hardware and software to give players quality, not just quirkiness.
The Playdate is a well-constructed device oozing with charm and its library has plenty to love. But at times its unique crank can create more ergonomic issues than its worth and despite how impressive the screen is I still find myself longing for a backlight.